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Can stupid people write wise laws?

… it is generally true that that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest …
Preamble, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, 1778

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise and honest laws require a well-educated citizenry.
During America’s war for independence, Jefferson devoted much of his time to re-writing Virginia’s laws. This is one of his most famous, providing for publicly-funded education for boys AND girls. It called for a system of primary and grammar schools throughout the state, plus scholarships for advanced education for the best but most impoverished students.

What was the connection between education and wise laws with honest administrators? Elsewhere in the Preamble Jefferson asserts that the only way to have these kinds of laws, honestly and wisely administered, was to have a well-educated citizenry.

Jefferson promoted this cause for the rest of his life, almost half a century. He never saw it implemented to the degree he proposed in 1778.

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Are you “savage” or “civilized”?

… were it made a question whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last; and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under the care of the wolves. It will be said that great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones. Notes on Virginia, Query XI, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Non-grasping leaders seek to diffuse government’s power.
Jefferson addressed an age-old question. Which is worse: No government or too much? He compared native Americans, whose governance was distributed among many, with Europeans, where it was concentrated among just a few. He favored the Indians’ way.

He compared the people to sheep. They were happier when left to themselves, as the natives did, then when protected by wolves, which he likened to European nobility.

What about the claim that people can’t have a great society without some kind of government? By implication, Jefferson accepted that claim. By necessity, then, government should not be concentrated in the hands of a privileged few but delegated very broadly into small units close to the people. Consolidated power held the seeds for the destruction of society.

Note that Jefferson regarded the American “savage” as more protective of people’s rights than the “civilized” Europeans.

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Is he always crazy or just sometimes?

The English papers and English ministry say the king is well. He is better, but not well: no malady requires a longer time to ensure against it’s return, than insanity. Time alone can distinguish accidental insanity from habitual lunacy.
To David Humphreys, March 18, 1789

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Recovery from mental illness comes very slowly, if at all.
In a long letter to a confidante of George Washington, Jefferson described both the current unrest in France and his reactions to a draft of the new U.S. Constitution. He was far too optimistic about France, for which he predicted much more liberty in the coming year. He liked the new Constitution, except for two omissions, about which I’ve already written. Several sentences are devoted to conflicts between various European nations, England included.

Prior to this excerpt, he referred to “The palsied state of the executive in England.” George III was bedeviled for years by intermittent mental illness. His most serious affliction began just months before this letter.

Jefferson could be justified for having little regard for the king of England. What role England would play in the European conflicts of 1789 and beyond depended, in part, upon the king’s health. Official England maintained the king was well. Jefferson was not convinced.

George III did regain his sanity for a time but did not keep it. By 1810, his power was transferred to his son, the Prince of Wales. He served in his father’s place as Prince Regent until taking the throne himself upon his father’s death in 1820.

Time proved Jefferson correct. The king’s insanity was not occasional but habitual.

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Productive meetings can be VERY short!

Some letters are recieved which require to be consulted & acted on to-day. if you will be so good as to come here on your arrival at your office, I will send for the other gentlemen. it will be an affair of not more than a quarter of an hour’s consultation.
To Albert Gallatin, November 24, 1806

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
SOME leaders like SHORT meetings!
This is Jefferson’s letter in its entirety. No doubt, it was written early in the day and hand-delivered to the office of his Treasury Secretary. I don’t know what the “Some letters” were nor the identity of “the other gentlemen.” Chances are they were some or all of his other Cabinet members.

These points are worth noting:
1. Urgent matters required decisions that day, not later.
2. He preferred a collaborative approach to problem-solving.
3. He gave the meeting’s time frame in advance, no more than 15 minutes. He wanted their opinions but would not dominate their day. They had other work to do, too.

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President and General Manager, Missouri Association of Mutual Insurance Companies

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I will shut up, and here’s why.

… in cases of doubt it is better to say too little than too much.
To President Washington, July 30, 1791

… on the principle that where there is a difference of opinion it is better to say too little than too much.
To Albert Gallatin, November 23, 1806

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Diplomatic leaders know when to keep their mouths shut.
These two letters presented different issues but the same philosophy.

The first regarded a diplomatic communication Jefferson proposed making to one of America’s ministers in France. Jefferson wanted to put certain information in the diplomat’s hands and trust his judgment whether to use it or not. Yet, he yielded to President Washington on the issue. If the potential harm from that information outweighed the good, it was better not to send it, because “in cases of doubt …”

The second letter to his Secretary of the Treasury concerned changes in the wording of a document Jefferson had forwarded the day before. Something in that wording must have been contentious, because Jefferson omitted it in the re-write, because “…where there is a difference of opinion … “

Jefferson did not want to give offense unnecessarily. If that meant holding his tongue, or his pen, when there was doubt (the first letter) or disagreement (the second letter), that was the wiser course. He was willing to say less if it meant he might accomplish more.

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Director of Communications and Education, Illinois Municipal League

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Would you say “No!” to the President?

No circumstances, my dear Sir, will ever more tempt me to engage in any thing public.  I thought myself perfectly fixed in this determination when I left Philadelphia, but every day and hour since has added to its inflexibility.
To Edmund Randolph, September 7, 1794
(Eighth letter down)

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, leaders have to say no, regardless who’s asking.
Jefferson resigned as President Washington’s Secretary of State at the end of 1793. Randolph had been Attorney General but took over at State after Jefferson’s departure. Ten days earlier, Randolph had written to Jefferson at the request of President Washington.
America’s ambassadors to Spain had been unable to secure that nation’s guarantee of unrestricted shipping down the Mississippi River. Kentucky was up in arms. All of her exports had to go down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and beyond. She feared an economic stranglehold. Randolph mentioned Kentucky going to war with Spain or separating from the Union as two possibilities of the stalemate.
President Washington asked Jefferson to go to Spain as a special envoy to resolve the conflict. Jefferson said no. He acknowledged the confidence the President had in him. Disappointing him was the only thing that made Jefferson reluctant to decline. Still, that didn’t change his answer.
Despite his protest that “no circumstances” would ever draw him back to public life, less than two years later he would stand as the head of the anti-federalist movement, challenging Vice-President Adams for the top job.
Nine years later, President Jefferson would finally resolve this threat to America’s west (which ended at the Mississippi River) by purchasing Louisiana from France. The Mississippi would become completely an American river.

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Cool discussion or shed blood?

Happy for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or to restore their constitutions.
To C. W. F. Dumas, September 10, 1787

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders provide for peaceful change.
Jefferson was not referring to the U.S. Constitution, because it was adopted after this date, on September 17, 1787. Nor was he referring to the Articles of Confederation, which the Constitution replaced. Instead, he was most likely affirming an American mindset to resort to deliberation rather than weapons to solve internal debates about governance.

Implied in the word “constitution” was that it was a “super law,” above other laws. Constitutions were not adopted by a simple majority or by bodies meeting in their regular assemblies. Nor could they be amended in that fashion. Constitutional amendments required super majorities from special assembles, often created for that purpose.


A constitution could be amended to meet changing circumstances, but that change would not happen easily or quickly. A protracted amending process was a protection, requiring a broad consensus among the citizenry. Even so, it was far better than bloodshed.

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American College of Real Estate Lawyers

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What keeps a government “virtuous”?

No government ought to be without censors: & where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack & defence. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth either in religion, law, or politics.
To the President of the United States, September 9, 1792

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Secure leaders value a free press.
This excerpt comes from a l-o-n-g letter to his boss, President Washington. Much of the letter is a harsh criticism of Alexander Hamilton’s conduct as Treasury Secretary and a passionate defense of his own as Secretary of State. He also defended his efforts to promote a free press, by which he meant an anti-Federalist press.

There was no attempt at objectivity in the press. Newspapers were outspoken mouthpieces for one side or the other. Jefferson believed the anti-Federalist cause to be under-represented. He also strongly opposed editorials with fictitious names, where the authors would not be publicly associated with their views.

Jefferson had a conflicted view of the press. He encouraged those newspapers which supported him and railed against ones in opposition. Regardless, he maintained that a free press, with “attack & defence,” was an essential protection, for the citizens and even the government itself. Only a free press could sort out the truth, and a “virtuous” government had nothing to fear from it.

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So, you think you’re in control?

I have got so far, my dear Martha, on my way to Philadelphia which place I shall not reach till the day after tomorrow. I have lost one day at Georgetown by the failure of the stages, and three days by having suffered myself to be persuaded at Baltimore to cross the bay and come by this route as quicker and pleasanter. After being forced back on the bay by bad weather in a first attempt to cross it, the second brought me over after a very rough passage, too late for the stage.—So far I am well, tho’ much fatigued.
To Martha Jefferson Randolph, February 28, 1797

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some things are simply way beyond a leader’s control.
Jefferson wrote to his elder daughter about his journey to the nation’s Capitol, where he would be inaugurated as Vice-President four days later. It was not an easy trip.

From Monticello, he traveled to what would become Washington City (later Washington, D. C.), but he referred to it as Georgetown, now a region within urban D.C., northwest of the White House. The horse-drawn stages weren’t operating, and he lost one day. Then northeast to Baltimore, where he yielded to another’s advice to cross the Chesapeake Bay and then north to Philadelphia. Bad weather and rough water cost him three more days. He was still at least two days from his destination.
He wrote this letter from Chestertown, MD, east across the Chesapeake from Baltimore.

He asked Martha to relay to her husband the prices that Virginia tobacco, wheat and cider were bringing in the cities.

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Executive Director, Nevada Association of Counties

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It doesn’t have to be complicated!

I have read and considered your report … and entirely approve of it, as the best plan on which we can set out. … I think it an object of great importance … to simplify our system of finance, and bring it within the comprehension of every member of Congress … we might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress, and every man of any mind in the Union, should be able to comprehend them to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.
To Albert Gallatin, April 1, 1802
(Second letter down)

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Objective leaders simplify to help people to understand.
Gallatin was Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary for eight years. Together, they wanted to replace the indecipherable finances and bookkeeping of the previous Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.  One year into Jefferson’s Presidency, he commented favorably on Gallatin’s plan to do that.
The goal of their plan was simple. The nation’s finances should be so straightforward that every member of Congress and every thinking person could understand them, “investigate abuses,” and thus control those abuses.

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Policy Director, Washington State Association of Counties

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